[8 October 2009]
While the summer has now passed us by, many theatres in my town are still playing the hit rom-com (500) Days of Summer. The story of young lovers Summer and Tom marks the feature-length directorial debut of music video director Marc Webb, and with his use of pop music in the film, his pedigree shows. The music isn’t just confined to the soundtrack—it colors the story to the point where it almost becomes another character in the script.
It seems no accident that Summer herself is played by an actor who is also a singer and songwriter, Zooey Deschanel. Her main musical vehicle is the duo She & Him, “Him” being indie troubadour M. Ward, and their debut CD, Volume One was released to critical acclaim in 2007.
Summer is portrayed as the ultimate muse, and Deschanel, well… she just married Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard. Girls like Summer/Zooey are worshipped by guys like Tom/Ben—intelligent, sensitive, slightly nerdy types possessed of depressive tendencies and more than a working knowledge of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s back catalogue. The kind of girl who can boost area sales of Belle and Sebastian’s The Boy with the Arab Strap CD single-handedly by quoting lyrics from it in her high school yearbook. Even at the karaoke bar, where even the best of us are reduced to Whitesnake’s greatest hits, Summer keeps her hipster cred intact with her winsome and incredibly charming take on Nancy Sinatra’s “Sugar Town”. Summer is the thinking man’s heartthrob.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, for his part, is no slouch in the charming department. His slightly rumpled, sweater-vest-and-Puma-wearing Tom recalls a sweeter, less misogynistic version of Rob Gordon in High Fidelity. He too blames his romantic ineptitude on having grown up on “sad British pop music” (or “sad bastard music” in High Fidelity) and seems to have a closet full of little more than Clash, Jam and Joy Division t-shirts.
Tom first speaks to Summer while listening to what could be called the Sad Bastard Anthem, “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” by the Smiths—a song she professes to love and thereby seals their what Tom adamantly believes is their fated meeting. We will later find out that Tom’s tween-age sister is the voice of reason when she warns him that “Just because some cute girl likes the same bizarro crap you do does not make her your soulmate.” But not until we go through a whole lot more music.
One thing Tom does that Rob Gordon would never do, even in fantasy, is burst into a song-and-dance number (complete with cartoon bluebird) to the Hall & Oates classic “You Make My Dreams”. Marc Webb has been known to work splashy choreography into the unlikeliest music videos, including every clip he’s ever directed for My Chemical Romance, a band that does not exactly conjure images of Busby Berkeley. So we are forewarned that Webb is a sucker for folks singin’ and dancin’ in color-coordinated costumes. Just as the number captures the unbridled exuberance of Tom’s first post-coital morning with Summer, the scenes of his post-breakup existence are accompanied by the Smiths’ “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bookends”, which are just about as maudlin and bleak as it gets.
Interestingly, the soundtrack CD features a cover of “Please…” by She & Him that really doesn’t work precisely because of the aforementioned winsomeness of Deschanel’s vocals. To put it plainly, Summer is too sunny to sing the Smiths.
Even the language of Tom and Summer’s relationship is filtered through music. When Summer walks into the room, Patrick Swayze’s schmaltz classic “She’s Like the Wind” plays in Tom’s mind. In the flush of new infatuation, when a partner’s character defects are seen instead as charming quirks, Tom can’t believe that Summer’s favorite Beatle is Ringo Starr, but simply chalks it up to her mystique as an adorable rebel. On the day of their breakup, however, a stroll through the record store and Summer’s reaction to Tom pulling out Starr’s 1981 album Stop and Smell the Roses become a turning point in their relationship and in the film. Because Summer’s reaction and Tom’s perception of her reaction are actually very different, and therein lies the crux of Tom’s problem.
More musical references come out when Summer tries to verbalize this incongruity to Tom:
“We’ve been like Sid and Nancy for months now.”
“Summer, Sid stabbed Nancy like seven times with a kitchen knife. I mean, I know we have some disagreements, but I hardly think I’m Sid Vicious.”
“No, I’m Sid!”
“Oh… so I’m Nancy?”
The tone of the songs mirrors the stage of the relationship as the non-linear narrative skips back and forth among the 500 days of the title. When things are happy, we get light, breezy fare like Feist’s “Mushaboom” and the Temper Trap’s “Sweet Disposition”. When things start to take a turn for the funky, as in the car scene where Tom first tries to broach the subject of where their romance is going, we hear what sounds like a pleasant little acoustic number by First Lady of France Carla Bruni, “Quelqu’un m’a dit”. But what we might not know is that the lyrics translate into something like “Someone told me / the time that slips away / is a bastard that makes coats out of our sorrows”! Much like Tom does with Summer, we only hear the pretty music when closer scrutiny might show us a darker reality we don’t want to know.
Later, of course, we follow Tom down the spiral of depression and despair for which bands like the Smiths exist. Fellow Mancunians, Doves, contribute “There Goes the Fear” to the jilted lover canon (“You turn around and life’s passed you by / You look to ones you love to ask them why”) as accompaniment to Tom’s post-Summer existence of filthy pajamas, bargain brand whiskey and Twinkies.
And as the depression wears off, time begins to work it’s healing magic, and Tom takes the best advice that Summer ever gave him—to pursue his architecture career—it all happens to Wolfmother’s “Vagabond”.
“Oh girl I don’t know all the reasons why / I found the answer lookin’ in your eye / I go out walking all day long / Take away this lonely man soon he will be gone / Cause I’ll tell you everything about living free”
It’s a big song, with a big chorus, and a big idea that sums up the moral of (500) Days of Summer‘s story. Tom was wrong about Summer being The One, but Summer was wrong about there being no such thing as The One. Tom teaches Summer that love is not just a myth, and in turn, she teaches him about living free.
Marc Webb is not one of those directors who simply moves from making four-minute music videos to 90-minute music videos (no offense to McG). Rather he’s taken his love of pop music and woven it into the fabric of his storytelling with great skill, nuance and sophistication. Not one song was included that didn’t serve on every level to advance the tale of Tom and Summer. I look forward to Webb’s future films—and I’m sure they will all have killer soundtracks.